Friday, April 1, 2011

Magical Montsorrel, A Magnificent Palm Beach Estate

The oceanside view of Montsorrel, Palm Beach, Florida.
With snow falling in New England, it is partly sunny and 85 degrees today in Palm Beach, Florida.  So it is as good time as any to present a project from a number of years ago that is a well known mansion locally, but not otherwise widely familiar.  With a listing price of $75 million, it was once the most expensive home in the nation.  (That price was surpassed when Donald Trump heaved the house next door on the market for $125 million;  see my December 13, 2010, post for more on the legendary house Blythedunes which formerly occupied the neighboring site.  But that is another story).
An arial view of Montsorrel.
Montsorrel was completed in 1969 after five years of planning and construction with design by French architect Jacques Regnault and Stephane Boudin of the legendary interior design firm Maison Jansen.  Boudin died in 1967 without seeing the project complete.  Regnault and Jansen were frequent collaborators with the most visible U.S. project being the building for society jeweler Harry Winston on Manhattan's Fifth Avenue.  The oceanfront estate with 608 feet of private beach sits on about seven acres, though some reports say 15 with perhaps the discrepancy being that the property is on both sides of North County Road.  There are also variations on the square footage, from 35,000 to 44,000 for the main house, and 12,000 to 16,000 for a later guest house/entertainment pavilion.  Plus there are additional service buildings and a caretaker's gatehouse.  In any case, The Devoted Classicist can definitely say that the mansion is immense and truly luxurious.
The entrance motor court of Montsorrel.
The original owner, Anita Ten Eyck O'Keeffe Young, was the widow of Robert R. Young.  They had started the project together, but Mr. Young shot himself in 1965 in the house that was previously on the property.  Local legend blames the suicide on a impluse after a mistaken belief that he had lost his fortune.  Mrs.Young named the estate Montsorrel in his memory;  the main house sets on a slight rise and the name translates as "Mountain of Sorrow".  Robert R. Young was a Texas-born businessman who had a successful Wall Street career before becoming a railroad baron, heading both the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway and the New York Central Railroad.  He introduced high-speed diesel powered passenger trains as well as the first large-scale railroad computer system.  Their only child was Eleanor "Cookie" Young, the first of the Great Depression era "Glamour Debutantes", presented in 1936 at their Newport, Rhode Island estate.  In 1938, Cookie was a 21 year old divorcee after an eight month marriage to socialite Robert Odgen "Bunty" Bacon.  She was killed in a 1941 plane crash.
The gallery of the main floor is repeated in the same width upstairs.
Anita O'Keeffe Young, sister of painter Georgia O'Keeffe, was a noted hostess and philanthropist.  She was a close friend of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor who were frequent guests.  The Jansen decoration, which was still intact during my participation in the project with the exception of the furniture and art, included upholstered walls in the premier guest room in a fabric with a Prince of Wales feather motif;  a small room adjoined for his valet.  The second guest room, decorated for Wallis, also had an adjoining room for her personal maid.  There is a large wing with other servants' quarters but with no direct connection to the three principal bedrooms on the second floor.
The hand-forged stair balustrade, in a favorite combination of steel and bronze, has a mahogany handrail.
I was brought onto the project by interior designer Bunny Williams to make some sensitive architectural adaptations for a couple with a young child in addition to grown children by a previous marriage.  More on these John Tackett Design improvements will be featured in a future post.

The Living Room walls are panelled in green and white marble.
Although there are relatively few principal rooms in the main house, all are particularly large.  The ceiling heights on the ground floor are fifteen feet and the flooring in all the principal rooms are antique parquet de Versailles, reportedly from the very palace.  The walls of the living room are clad in green and white marble slabs installed in a pattern of panelling.  With a flick of a switch, the chandelier can be lowered for maintenance.  Twin loggias facing the ocean each have a glass wall that can be raised from the basement to provide protection from the ocean spray.  These photos are all from Sotheby's DOMAIN magazine, 2001, and show alterations in both Jansen's and Bunny Williams' decorative schemes.
The swimming pool courtyard of the main house at Montsorrel.
The swimming pool is located in a travertine-paved walled courtyard with sliding glass panels to block strong ocean breezes.  Salt water can be pumped from the ocean, and heated to the desired temperature if necessary.  Also, there is a canopy that extends over the west side of the huge pool so laps can be done in the shade.
Mrs. Young died in 1985 and the contents of Montsorrel, along with her palatial Newport summer estate Fairholme, were sold in two celebrated auctions at Sotheby's.  (She had donated her earlier Newport home Ochre Lodge to Salve Regina University in 1966).  When Montsorrel was first listed for sale for $18 million, it was the most expensive house to that date in the eastern United States.  But the high taxes and expense to maintain the estate made the house less than appealing.  In the spring of 1987, it finally sold for $13.5 million.
Montsorrel remains a private home today and tall hedges prevent much of a street view of the main house, but a glimpse of the circa 1990 guest house/entertainment pavilion across the road might be seen down the driveway.  Some might find the satellite views of 545 and 548 North County Road interesting, however.  Fairholme is located at 237 Ruggles Avenue, Newport, Rhode Island, and was listed on the market last year for $18 million.  Harry Winston, Inc., is located at 718 Fifth Avenue, New York City;  the 1959 alteration of an earlier building has provided an identity that has been duplicated in their stores world-wide.


  1. the living room and the pool are lovely.
    the place is impressive.
    ...but then most of palm beach is.
    i find the smaller homes more lush to the eye,
    probably because landscaping is more easily controlled - and you can have alot of it framing the home.

    it sure has become warm here very quickly.
    summer for us is here. i am not happy.

    but, how about the ocean side 'back yard?'

  2. great summing up - great project to get to work on! Look forward to more on that.

  3. Ha! I remember how shockingly huge in scale this house seemed to me 25 years ago---little did I know what was in store for Palm Beach in the years to come (as you mentioned, the transistion of the former Wrightsman estate next door is another story indeed). The pool and adjoining loggia is heaven.
    The place is certainly a contrast to Mrs. Young's sister's New Mexico adobe, isn't it? I look forward to the further posts.

  4. Renee, sometimes I think I would be happy with just one good room. One good room on a patch of grass with a few palm trees and a private beach. Montsorrel is great in that all the principal rooms of the main house directly face the ocean with the pool essentially private, but also with a view to the ocean. There is an internal service court but the property is so wide that the kitchen and staff rooms have a good oblique ocean views, too. The house is definitely grand, but the arrangement keeps it from being completely overpowering.

  5. D.E.D., knowing you had lived in P.B., I figured you surely were familiar with this house and hoped you would comment. Along with Mar-A-Lago (though no longer a private residence) at the other end of the island, Montsorrel is a survivor where other great houses were razed and the property subdivided. The appealing Neo-Regence style architecture and the high quality of construction have worked in its favor. And the acreage along with the variations in the massing keep the big square footage from being overwhelming.

  6. D.E.D., surely there is a story in the relationship between Anita O'Keeffe Young, who seems to have always used her maiden name in combination with her married name, and her sister, Georgia O'Keeffe. Certainly Mrs. Young was well known nationally in society circles, though not a recognizable name like the artist. But fame and celebrity were not embraced then as it seems to be now. Perhaps you will be inspired to do one of your marvelous profiles on the sisters.

  7. I'll take it!

    Now that's Palm Beach.


  8. It seems rather unusual to have such a large building on such a small acreage, but I suppose land is at a premium here. From your second photo it's almost as if the surrounding properties are making a plan to take it over.

    That notwithstanding, I enjoyed your post, and especially reading about your involvement in the project at a later stage. Many thanks for sharing.

  9. Columnist, while Hunt Country equestrian estates have more acreage, this ocean front site is on the large side for Palm Beach, especially considering the plot across the road. In the arial photo you might be able to make out the wide central driveway to the c. 1990 guest house; previously this had only a horticultural use with gardens and a greenhouse.

  10. Green marbled walls in the living room - amazing!

  11. What a beautiful home Montsorrel is! It would be a great honour to call it home.

  12. izzidonna@gmail.comJanuary 6, 2012 at 7:51 PM

    Perusing the Georgia O'Keefe site and came across her sisters property.My sister was a personal assistant to Mrs. Young in the late 1970's.I visited my sister at the Fairholme Estate on Ruggles in Newport.Beautiful!!!Mrs. Young also had the "ocean water" pumped into her in-ground pool with surround sound speakers.Very classy!! We have pictures of Ruggles....You posted that there were none available of the interior design? Contact us if interested. I hope this message finds you.

  13. My Grand Mother was one of Mrs. Young's many friends. I frequently wet with her to visit Mrs. Young at the Palm Beach House. It was like a Palace both inside and outside. However, It always seemed cold and Museum like. Anita used to have one of her staff raise and lower the glass partition on the loggia for me explaining it was magic. She was an amazing woman. Very caring and loved children or at least me. LOL! I also remember the garages and how they were in the staff wing in a court yard driveway arrangement. I don't know what changes were made after Mrs. Young died, but Montsorrel was so fabulous I can't imagine too much that could have improved it. Thanks for posting this piece It brought back lots of nice memories from my childhood.


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